Have you ever played a party game where you improvise a writer's work in another writer's style: Noddy and Big Ears in the style of Quentin Tarantino, Hamlet in the style of Harold Pinter, that sort of thing. Well Stiffelio is a bit like Ibsen's Doll's House in the style of Verdi.
Italian audiences in 1850 must have been bemused. A protestant minister learns that his wife has been having an affair. Rather than kill her, as you expect in an Italian opera, he first divorces her and then publicly forgives her. Verdi was disappointed by the failure of the work and rewrote it as Araldo, the hero being a more acceptable Crusader rather than a protestant minister. The score of Stiffelio was lost for more than 100 years and it was not until 1993 that a performing version by Sir Edward Downes brought the work back into public prominence.
Sir Edward conducts this performance from Covent Garden. Jose Carreras as Stiffelio is rather er, stiff, but that is consistent with the role. Catherine Malfitano as Lina gives a superbly acted and sung performance as the wife torn between her lover and her honourable husband. She has several tour de force arias. Strangely there is no applause after them. I would be surprised if director Brian Large had edited out the applause; it seems that the Covent Garden audience is just being more uptight than it usually is. Also notable in the cast is Gregory Yurisch as Stankar, Lina's father. The excellent scene between Malfitano and Yurisch is like a dry run for Act II of Traviata.
The sets and the costumes are, as you might expect, pure Ibsen. The overall effect is fascinating and well worth seeing although feminists may bristle at the end when Lina throws herself at Stiffelio's feet in gratitude for his magnanimity.
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